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the future with a foot in the past

saige walton: experimenta, utopia now


 You Were In My Dream (2010), Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine You Were In My Dream (2010), Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine
image courtesy the artists
FOR ITS FOURTH INTERNATIONAL BIENNIAL OF MEDIA ART, EXPERIMENTA WAS FRAMED BY THE LURES AND ELUSIVENESS OF INHABITING ‘UTOPIA.’ AMASSING MORE THAN 35 INTERACTIVE AND SCREEN-BASED WORKS FROM AUSTRALIA AS WELL AS INDIA, CANADA, FRANCE, SOUTH AFRICA AND THE UK, THE BIENNIAL CHARTED MYRIAD WAYS MEDIA ARTISTS TODAY ENVISION THE LONGSTANDING DESIRE FOR A BETTER WORLD. WHILE THE TITLE OF THE EXHIBITION, UTOPIA NOW, LEADS ONE TO EXPECT AN IMPLICITLY HOPEFUL ENCOUNTER WITH NEW MEDIA ART, THE SELECTED WORKS RANGED FROM JOYOUS AND HUMOROUS TO DESOLATE AND UNNERVING.

Prompting us to consider a series of possible futures, the theme of the exhibition parallels the concerns of the sci-fi genre where projections of the future function as anxious meditations upon or inspirational extensions of the present day. For myself, it seemed fitting, then, that entry into the Blackbox space resounded with allusions to science-fiction. After passing through a large inflated white façade—itself reminiscent of the gleaming white cities of hope that once appeared in the design of 19th century world expositions and the futuristic city designs of films such as Things to Come (1936)—we are greeted by a suspended garden, Akousmaflore by the French duo known as Scenocosme (Grégory Lasserre & Anaïs met den Ancxt, 2008). Invited to touch the draping tendrils and leaves of the overhanging plants, we discover that this garden can emit sounds and acoustic vibrations.
Akousmaflore, Scenocosme Akousmaflore, Scenocosme
courtesy Experimenta and the artists
Akousmaflore brings together the human, the natural and the technological to imply harmonious fusion. The work itself is founded upon proximity and recognition: as flesh and flora connect, the tiny concealed sensors that are lodged within the greenery become ‘aware’ of our presence and trigger varying sonic effects. One wonders, however, whether or not this leafy chorus harbours darker undertones. In the greenhouses of the future, will the hybridisation of nature and technology lead us towards social betterment or destruction? Such questions became all the more pressing when an occasional scream issued from the garden. At that point, the captivating ‘song’ of the plants ceded to the potential for a botanical uprising—perhaps along the lines of John Wyndam’s novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951)—and I chose to move on.
I Feel Cold Today (2007), Patrick Bernatchez I Feel Cold Today (2007), Patrick Bernatchez
image courtesy the artist
One of the most compelling features of the biennial was its notion of a future still to be decided, through a rhythmic alternation between ominous and optimistic scenarios across the assembled works. Thanks to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, the idea is commonly understood as the dream of an ideal society or a perfect world. If utopia is an age-old ideal that speaks to our sun-dappled dreams, then Experimenta rightly chose to pay heed to the aesthetic complexity of its curatorial premise by showcasing the prospect of utopias lost as well as found. Alongside the more humorous artworks of the exhibition—for instance, were video shorts that elicited our laughter through the dissonant and the absurd, such as The Hunt (Christian Jankowski, 1992/1997) in which a man, armed with a toy bow-and-arrow, enters a supermarket and deftly spears supplies (bread, milk, a frozen chicken) with child-like abandon, before proceeding to the checkout—are works charged with nightmarish visions of dystopian chaos. To that end, the elegiac I Feel Cold Today (Patrick Bernatchez, 2007) presents us with the darkened flip side of utopian rationality and order. At once beautiful and imbued with a palpable sense of mourning, the work journeys through floor after floor of an abandoned office building, gradually filling with snow. Instead of people, its scenes are filled with office chairs and windswept paperwork. All that is left of capitalism and economic industry are its vestigial remnants, soon to be covered over by a blanket of post-apocalyptic snow.
Shadow 3 (2007), Shilpa Gupta Shadow 3 (2007), Shilpa Gupta
courtesy Experimenta and the artists
Often, it is difficult to separate out the ludic appeals of the works on display from their darker portents as both utopic and dystopic possibilities reside within the same piece. Consider the affective implications of the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s large-scale interactive installation, Shadow 3 (2007). What begins as a playful scenario in which the visitor’s shadow is projected life-sized before them gives way to an unnerving ‘string’ that steadfastly attaches itself to our silhouette. Whereas beforehand we had controlled the actions of our shadowed selves, now detritus begins to slide down the string and affix itself to our shadow. Shadowplay animation leads to our own uncanny automation for we cannot halt the accumulating pile of debris. Eventually, our shadows are overcome by a tidal wave of junk, drowned by the rubbish.
Utopia (2006), Cao Fei Utopia (2006), Cao Fei
image courtesy the artists
Alternately, Cao Fei’s mesmerising film, Whose Utopia (2006), posits that utopia is where you make it. Set within a light bulb factory in Guangdong, China, Fei’s film entwines scenes of factory workers engaged in mundane and repetitive tasks and the escapist fantasies of four workers. Shots of a ballerina’s poised gestures alternate with images of a man break dancing in the aisles or another man absorbed in strumming an electric guitar, while the drum of industrial machinery, the regimentation of work and the stark lighting of the factory floor persist throughout. Sometimes, utopia is found in the most unlikely or gloomy of places because this is a concept that is tethered to individual hopes and dreams.

Without question, the stand out work of Utopia Now (and a definite crowd favourite) was the Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine commission, You Were In My Dream (2010). As the artists so adeptly prove, even the utopias belonging to long since past traditions of art and entertainment can be discovered again and revitalized anew, within the ‘new media’ sphere of technologically augmented art. You Were In My Dream is a glorious stop-motion animation that recalls media art history from the vantage point of the present. Functioning as equal parts perspective box, reflective display and interactive installation, the visitor is seated at a booth and provides the stand-in face for a child protagonist (fed live into the animation). Equipped with a mouse, we are prompted by the appearance of sparkles on-screen to select our chosen path/storyline within an enchanted forest. The densely textured world of You Were In My Dream consists of hand-cut paper human and animal characters, delicate feathers and fronds–demonstrating how such material still persists within the age of the digital. Unlike the traditional perspective boxes of earlier periods of history, however, this work is not confined to a single-user experience. Indeed, the crowds who gathered around the piece seemed just as transfixed by the exterior projection on the side of the wooden box as I was by the world unraveling within it.

Similarly, William Kentridge’s What Will Come (2007) opts to retell the historic atrocities of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) through the forgotten media art of the anamorphosis, projecting the ‘real’ story of these events upon a cylindrical surface that dates back to the seventeenth-century. Life Writer (Laurent Mignonneau & Christa Sommerer) also merges the analogue and the digital: you sit at a typewriter, press the keys and the letters generate different codes that result in insect-like creatures swarming across the projected page. The combination of code and artificially-generated creatures from an older mode of writing seem entirely apposite—it is well known that cyberpunk author William Gibson first conceived of the birth of cyberspace from the purview of his own typewriter.

While many of the works contained in Utopia Now do function as somewhat like one-trick ponies—have your digital portrait taken and watch yourself aged via face-reading and morphing software; press a button, hold yourself against a glass panel and see yourself transformed into a suspended, full-body scan—this should not be taken as criticism. Arguably, much of the strength of Experimenta’s Biennial stems from its negotiation of old and new technologies. To that end, I am reminded of what the early film historian Tom Gunning refers to as the pre-1910 “cinema of attractions” as it invoked a presentational rather than representational experience of film and one that directly addressed the spectator. Towards the conclusion of the short digital animation, Please Say Something (David OReilly, 2009), another favourite of mine, a complicated cat and mouse pair steps forward to take a bow and allude to our own appreciation of the display. This is the great strength of the Experimenta Biennial—its deliberate inclusion of the visitors themselves as embodied and vital participants within the artworks.

Decades on from the techno-utopianism that accompanied the beginnings of digital culture and new media art (what the cultural critic Scott Bukatman aptly terms “cyberdrool”), Experimenta continues to bring together old and new technologies, to suggest that no medium ever completely disappears, and invites us to have fun along the way. This biennial might not have been utopia attained but, at times, it did function as an enthralling place to visit.


Experimenta, Utopia Now: International Biennial of Media Art, Blackbox, The Arts Centre, Melbourne, feb 12-March 14

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 27

© Saige Walton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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